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Missing persons: revisiting dedicated units with training and resource

Lack of focus with MISPER reports are bad news for police forces and families

Issues of case handling responsibility, proper risk assessment at the initial report stage and transfer of MISPER cases between different forces have all been features of high profile incidents in recent months.

While this is bread and butter police work involving large numbers of cases every year  - many involving multiple repeat reports where the individual is found safe and well - forces are starting to realise that a more forensic approach and dedicated resources are required if they are to avoid these pitfalls and criticism from coroners and the IOPC.

The Met has the largest and most complex Misper caseload in the country and in response is developing a Central Vulnerability Hub (CVH) as a single front door for all incidents where progression risk and initial investigation will sit.

It is designed to give a bit of breathing space to secondary investigators who have high caseloads by equipping the initial investigators with support and training to make better decisions when Misper reports first come in.

Detective Inspector Chris Minnighan said that the Met has had a bespoke training course for missing person investigations for more than five years but that was only made available to secondary investigators, crucially not the officers who receive the initial reports from family and associates.  

“You have to have breathing space in order to give yourself the opportunity for decision making,” he told a national police missing persons conference in Bradford yesterday. “Because with missing people if you get that decision wrong at the front end it is very difficult to recover, unlike other forms of crime.”

He said that the creation of the CVH has “been a long time coming” for a force with such a high caseload.

The hub is designed to assist officers with the initial handling of reports as they come in. In 2022 in 80 per cent of cases where “failure” was shown to occur, it happened at the front end of the process at the key stages where officers are supposed to recognise risk and attribute “bespoke actions” based on those assessments.

Chris Minnighan is also the Met’s corporate spokesman at inquests and goes around the country giving evidence on cases where people who have been reported missing have been found dead. Any lessons to come out of those hearings in the form of  coroners' prevention of future death notices (PFPs) or IOPC recommendations all relate to initial handling of the incident by the police, he adds. Key factors are understanding vulnerability, incident management and insight.

The London Assembly’s report on missing children published this month highlighted inconsistencies of dealing with Missing Children reports across the Met’s 12 BCUs.

He said the idea of the CVH is essentially a single front door with a triage capability and a vulnerability management desk. A key element will be informed engagement because a number of high profile cases have shown this is where the MPS has fallen down in the past. This means affording the time at the beginning of a report to listen to people properly when they report their concerns about a family member.

The importance of tradecraft

Chris says his view is that this basically comes down to tradecraft. He adds: “Over the years we have lost the ability to talk and listen to people effectively. One of the key things we want to bring back is to afford that time and to recognise the concern behind someone calling the police.”

An important function of the hub is also to recognise cases when police intervention is not required but at the moment he says the force doesn’t have the right processes in place to make those decisions. “Once we have quantified risk at the front end that will shape an appropriate and professional response.”

Under the new system investigations will be initiated by the CVH  - not just passed on  - and it will retain responsibility for those investigations. Professional judgement will be used to decide when to handover an investigation to the local BCU.

The MPS has looked scientifically at the resources that will be required to effectively staff the CVH.

Teams will consist of an Inspector, four sergeants and 24 PCs and will operate 24/7 all year round.

“Essentially this is new business we haven’t done this before  -  we have had iterations but it hasn’t been properly resourced,” he says.

Time frame mentality

Case handling is a key area to be ironed out and a pilot is being planned around that to see if it can be improved. Previously, he says the system has been ‘wrapped up’ in time frames with 48 hour periods before cases are handed over to someone else. “This has worked against us,” he says. “Cases can sit because of the time frames attributed to ownership - they stagnate. We are handing over cases where nothing has been progressed and the focus hasn’t been right. You need a process where things have been completed before cases are handed over to the second investigators”.

One of the biggest opportunities is to bring back a bit of clarity to the ranks and roles involved in Misper inquiries. In the CVH constables will be empowered as investigators and upskilled to progress inquiries and make decisions. “They need to be confident and comfortable with OIC status and that hasn’t happened before,” says Chris. He said too many officers have ‘babysat’ jobs, sought advice at an early stage. Under the new system investigation plans will be set by PCs with proper oversight. He also says the Misper investigations in the Met have historically skipped the sergeant rank who have very little to do with inquiries and PCs answering directly to inspectors.

“Any strategic direction was stuck with inspectors who were overloaded  and that is a problematic issue,’ he aded. Within the new hub sergeants will have a key role in oversight of cases and in time the aim is for them to become experts in their field. 

The role of the inspectors in the unit will be wider MPS liaison with other units but they will also be the decsion maker for any transfer of cases to another force. 

Training will also be crucial. "We have to acknowledge that with missing persons we rarely train our staff to do things properly," says Chris. "We are expecting critical up front decision makers to make the right decision without adequate training. We know that across policing knowledge and experience leads to confidence and expertise and that's the pattern we want for the CVH to improvie our response."

He also says that more direct contact with partnership agencies will be crucial. The ambition is for the unit to be 'dialled in' with the London Ambulance Service, PoLSA units for search advice and marine policing.

The Met currently has 12 missing persons units which are longstanding and they will continue with secondary investigations once the CVH gets established. They will also progress cold cases and historic cases.

 PCSO Spocs in care homes 

Three million investigative hours per year are used up nationally by police forces on missing persons reports. This has influenced Merseyside Police in including its missing persons functions within the core prevention work ordered by chief constable Serena Kennedy to be at the centre of how the force operates.

One of the more controversial outcomes of the policy is embedding PCSO SPOCS in care homes where a significant proportion of the repeat Misper workload comes from. “Should police be picking up this area of business?” Chief Insp Steve Cooke told delegates. “Probably not.” But he says the force has got some really good feedback on the initiative. The PCSOs have helped address the common issue in the care home sector of hair trigger reporting of Mispers when a child is only a few minutes over an agreed return time.

Merseyside’s missing persons unit (MPU) is open from 7am to 11pm seven days a week. It includes desk based investigators (DBIs) who carry out the risk based assessments on incoming reports and also conduct ‘long arm’ monitoring of missing persons social media accounts to provide any location intelligence.

LOCATE officers conduct door to door inquiries and are also involved in follow up interviews if a missing child is found. Although response officers still take charge of any high risk missing persons cases the whole system is designed to reduce the workload on those teams. In the eight months since the new system has been in place Chief Insp Cooke estimates that 70 per cent of that workload has been reduced.

Force A to force B

One of the most difficult issues for forces around Mispers is when the person sought is suspected of leaving one force area and travelling to another or crosses several force boundaries. There are protocols in place for when this happens in terms of passing responsibility to another police jurisdiction but lack of communication has led in some cases to disputes over ‘ownership.’

Chief Insp Alan Rhees Cooper who is the staff officer to NPCC missing persons lead DCC Catherine Hankinson says too often forces are sending emails to forces covering the geographical area they suspect the missing person may have gone to but not following that up with direct communication. Basically a phone call with the appropriate officer is required he says.

He cited a case involving a MISPER suicide risk who travelled from one force area to another  -  an area that was familiar to both himself and his family. The force where the incident was reported sent a request to the target force via email but a search was delayed while that force waited for the handover paperwork to be completed.

They also told the reporting force that the potential search area was too large to be feasible not knowing that the family had suggested some favourite places where the subject was likely to go to which would have significantly narrowed down the search area.

In the event the search was significantly delayed resulting in the family going to the area themselves and finding the body of their dead relative in a public place.

Make the call

Chief Insp Rhees Cooper told the conference that coroners had repeatedly said that in high risk cases searches should not be postponed “while waiting an official transfer [of the investigation] from force A to force B.” He added that the issue had caused a lot of unnecessary friction between forces involved in MISPERS and the NPCC has introduced a new form for forces to fill in the paperwork to transfer a case over. But he stressed: “Don’t just rely on sending the form. Follow up communication is vital. Decision makers need to speak to the requesting officer.”

In the NPCC guidance the optimum response time from one force to another was two hours for a high risk case, four for medium risk cases and eight for low risk.

He said there had been some “ridiculous cases” where control rooms had refused to give the decision making inspector’s contact number to an officer from another force and they had to dial 101 and wait 30 minutes to get through to somebody.

He said inter-force disputes about who has responsibility for the MISPER are largely mis-placed. What responsible officers need to consider is “on the balance of probabilities which force area is the MISPER  most likely to be in.”

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